Carnevale Venezia: a guide to Venice's masked festival

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This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.

Location: Venice, Italy. Piazza San Marco is the focus of the festival.

Dates: begins two Saturdays before Ash Wednesday, finishing on Fat (Shrove) Tuesday

Level of participation: 3 – don a mask and join in the famous ball.

Venice. Festival.'Masks of Venice #21' by Chiara MarraCreative Commons Attribution

Related article: Viareggio Carnevale: tips for watching Italy's parade of parades

The high point in Venice’s social calendar, Carnevale is a masked extravaganza, and your chance to spend 12 days looking like the Phantom of the Opera. The world’s best-known baroque fancy-dress party, it’s as extravagant as Rio’s Carnaval is riotous, celebrating the approach of spring with refined gusto.

Venetians have been celebrating Carnevale since at least the 15th century. In those days private clubs organised masked balls, and popular entertainment included such gentle fun as bull-baiting and firing live dogs from cannons. By the 18th century Venice was in the grip of hedonism, and the licentious goings-on of Carnevale lasted two months. The event fell into decline after the city was seized by Napoleon in 1797, and was abandoned when Mussolini banned the wearing of masks. It was revived in 1979, once again staking its place among the world’s finest festivals.

The festivities begin on the Friday afternoon with La Festa delle Marie, a procession through the city. This is a precursor to the official opening on Saturday, when a masked procession leaves Piazza San Marco around 4pm and circulates through the streets. The next day there are jousts and other mock-military tournaments. The following Friday evening sees the festival’s high point, the Gran Ballo delle Maschere (Grand Masked Ball), or Doge’s Ball, which takes place in different locations each year – usually a suitably grand palace is chosen for the event. Anyone with proper costume and mask who is able to dance the quadrilles and other steps of a few centuries ago may join in.

Saturday and Sunday are given over to musical and theatrical performances in Piazza San Marco and other locations. Calcio storico (a medieval approximation of football in period costume) matches are played on Piazza San Marco, also the scene for a parade of the best and most ornate costumes (the parade is repeated on Tuesday). On the Sunday, a beautiful procession of decorated boats and gondolas carrying masked passengers wends its way serenely down the Grand Canal.

During the course of the festivities, plenty goes on outside the main events. Street performers fill the main thoroughfares and squares and an ice-skating rink is sometimes set up in Campo San Polo.

Essentials: to really enjoy the Carnevale spirit you’ll need a mask, at the least. Two of the finest mask makers are Ca’ Macana (www.camacana.com) and L’Arlecchino. Reservations for the masked ball can be made through the Carnevale website.

Local attractions: float through canals in a gondola, wander the labyrinthine alleys and admire the golden gleam of St Mark’s Basilica.

More info: Carnevale Venezia (www.carnevale-venezia.com)

See more festivals in February here.

This article was first published in December 2010 and was republished in January 2013.